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Candlemas is the last festival in the Christian year that is dated by reference to Christmas; subsequent holidays are calculated with reference to Easter, so Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas and Epiphany season.
- "Down with the rosemary, and so
- Down with the bays and misletoe ;
- Down with the holly, ivy, all,
- Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall" ( — Robert Herrick (1591-1674), "Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve")
It is observed on February 2nd in the Western churches and February 15th in the Eastern churches. Its formal name is either the festival of the Purification of the Virgin (especially in the Eastern orthodox rite and in the uniate rites of the Roman Catholic Church), or the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (especially in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church).
The date of Candlemas is established by the date set for the Nativity of Jesus, for it comes 40 days afterwards. Under Mosaic law, a mother who had given birth to a man-child was considered unclean for seven days; moreover she was to remain for three and thirty days "in the blood of her purification." Candlemas therefore corresponds to the day on which Mary, according to Jewish law (see Leviticus12:2 - 8), should have attended a ceremony of ritual purification. The gospel of Luke:2:22-39 relates that Mary attended such a ceremony in the Jerusalem temple, and this explains the formal names given to the festival.
In the West, the date of Christmas is now fixed at December 25, and Candlemas therefore falls the following February 2. However in the Eastern Orthodox church, Jesus's birth is celebrated on January 6th, and the feast of the Purification therefore falls on February 15th. This is probably the original date. The earliest reference to a celebration was when the intrepid pilgrim nun Egeria, travelling in the Holy Land, 381 - 384, reported that February 14th was a day solemnly kept in Jerusalem with a procession to Constantine's Basilica of the Resurrection, a homily on Luke 2:22— which makes the occasion perfectly clear— and a mass. This so-called Itinerarium Peregrinatio ("Pilgrimage Itinerary") of Egeria does not offer a name for the Feast, however. The date, February 14 proves that in Jerusalem at that time, Christ's birth was celebrated on January 6, Epiphany. Egeria writes for her beloved fellow nuns at home:
- "XXVI The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honour, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw Him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which His parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place."
In Rome, the feast appears in the Gelasian Sacramentary, a manuscript collection of the 7th and 8th centuries associated with Pope Gelasius I, but with many interpolations and some forgeries. There it carries for the first time the new title of the feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Late in time though it may be, Candlemas is still the most ancient of all the festivals in honor of the Virgin Mary. The date of the feast in Rome was moved forward to the 2nd of February, since during the late 4th century the Roman feast of Christ's nativity been introduced as December 25th.
Though modern laypeople picture Candlemas as an important feast throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, in fact it spread slowly in the West; it is not found in the Lectionary of Silos (650) nor in the Calendar (731-741) of Sainte-Genevieve of Paris. Later, however, Candlemas did become important, and therefore found its way into the secular calendar. References to it are common in later medieval and early Modern literature; Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is recorded as having its first performance on Candlemas Day, 1602. As a poem by Robert Herrick records, the eve of Candlemas was the day on which Christmas decorations of greenery were removed from people's homes. It remains one of the Scottish quarter days, at which debts are paid and law courts are in session.
Candlemas is chiefly observed nowadays in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. In the Roman Catholic tradition it is the day on which believers bring beeswax candles to their local church to blessed for use in the church or in the home.
Relation to non-Christian celebrations
In the United States, Candlemas evolved into Groundhog Day celebrated on the same date.
The earliest American reference to Groundhog Day can be found at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College:
- February 4, 1841 - from Morgantown, Berks County (Pennsylvania) storekeeper James Morris' diary..."Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate." 
Secular historians have sometimes argued that the Roman church introduced Candlemas celebrations in opposition to the pagan feast of Lupercalia. The Catholic Encyclopedia is definite in its rejection of this argument: "The feast was certainly not introduced by Pope Gelasius to suppress the excesses of the Lupercalia," referencing Migne, Missale Gothicum, 691). The Britannica agrees: the association with Gelasius "has led some to suppose that it was ordained by Pope Gelasius I in 492 as a counter-attraction to the heathen Lupercalia; but for this there is no warrant." Since the two festivals are both concerned with the ritual purification of women, not all historians are convinced that the connection is purely coincidental. Gelasius' certainly did write a treatise against Lupercalia, and this still exists (see Lupercalia.)
The tradition that some modern Christians observe, of lighting a candle in each window (or in each room), does not appear to be ancient. It is not the origin of the name "Candlemas" which refers to a blessing of candles.